Want to be a global citizen? Learn another language!

There is an old joke that goes if you speak two languages you are bilingual. If you speak more than two languages you are multilingual. If you speak only one language, you are American. Of course, this does not hold true if you are one of the roughly 47 million people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home and also speak English well. In fact, despite our nation’s resistance, bilingualism is on the rise.

There is still a lot hostility toward learning languages in our society. Twenty-seven U.S. states name English as their sole official language. When President Obama suggested in a speech during his first term that we should make sure that all of our kids speak more than one language, he drew laughter and sharp criticism from English-only advocates. But more and more people, along with the media are starting to pay attention to the benefits of speaking more than one language.

TIME magazine published an article entitled “The Power of the Bilingual Brain” this past summer. A few highlights:

  • The state of Utah is implementing one of the most ambitious immersion language programs ever. About 20% of all elementary students in the state are working toward fluency in Spanish, Mandarin, French, and coming soon…Portuguese.
  • New research is showing that multi-linguals’ brains are more efficient when multitasking and reasoning.
  • Multilingualism may even delay the onset of dementia and full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

If any of these cognitive and health benefits are true, then why in the world are we not offering immersion language programs to more students in this country?

In Seattle Public Schools, we currently have four international elementary schools where students can spend half the day learning in a language other than English. They follow a two-way immersion model. Students are learning core subjects like math and science in Mandarin, Spanish, or Japanese. There are also two international middle schools and two international high schools, including Chief Sealth International, where I currently teach.

Spots in Seattle’s dual language classrooms are high in demand. Many parents rent or buy homes in the international school neighborhoods to secure an opportunity for their children to become bilingual. My own daughter was number 37 on the waiting list for a spot in a dual language kindergarten classroom this year (we do not live in the school’s neighborhood and she did not get in).

Dual language programs are certainly not only advantageous for English speakers who want to learn another language. A number of research studies demonstrate that English Language Learners also benefit greatly. In my high school, we have a class of eighteen freshmen who spent the past three years in a dual language program in their middle school. Most of them speak Spanish at home with their families and English at school with their friends.

I have been co-teaching in their dual language world history class for the first week and half of the school year (the permanent teacher is arriving from Spain in a few days). While the students naturally want to speak English to each other in their table groups, we have maintained a Spanish-only environment in the classroom. It is exciting to see them improving their academic language in both languages. (They each have two periods a day in Spanish and the other four are in English.)

I did not discover my own love of learning languages until I began learning Spanish in the seventh grade. In high school, I had an extraordinary Spanish teacher who motivated me to go on to major in Spanish in college. I studied abroad in South America for a year and ended up teaching Spanish a few years later. While the majority of students in the United States take just a couple of years of a world language in high school and stop there, I managed to beat the odds.

My biggest lesson throughout my years of study was that learning languages is much more than just a way to communicate. In the broader sense of global education, languages are a window into other cultures and worldviews. Learning a second (or third) language leads us toward becoming globally competent citizens.

As many of us aim to improve our teaching and assessment of 21st century skills, we must remember that language learning is an essential component of teaching our students how to be active global citizens.

What kinds of opportunities for kids to learn languages from a young age are there in the districts where you teach? What obstacles do you think might be in the way of creating more dual language programs in our schools and how might we overcome them? 

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